The box and the apocalypse may seem far apart in terms of meaning, one being as mundane an object as we can find and the other the extreme of esotericism. But it doesn’t take much analyzing to see their deep relationship. The box hides and protects, the apocalypse reveals (its actual etymology) and destroys (as the end of the world). The opening of the box is a revelation that exposes the content.
The piece of media that prompted this essay is The Box by Richard Kelly. And I find no better piece to start this exposition as we can fairly say that Richard Kelly is the most prominent apocalyptic filmmaker, considering that all three of his movies are about the end of the world.
The Box was released to the world in 2009 by the great doomsayer Richard Kelly. Famous for Donnie Darko and infamous for Southland Tales, The Box was largely ignored and forgotten. I myself didn’t give it any attention, even though I’m a great fan of his other movies. To my surprise upon watching it I found precisely what one would expect from a R.K. movie: good ol’ apocalyptic drama. I think a box pretty much becomes a symbol of the movie as it exists in the industry: a Richard Kelly movie in a Hollywood thriller package. It might’ve been expected after the glorious implosion of Southland Tales. I can see him having to bend the arm after having been given the leeway to make such an ambitious film and then… Thus the box becomes the Trojan horse carrying all his millenarian fervor that he needs to give but in a safer façade.
The movie as a whole is based on Richard Matheson’s short story “Button, Button.” In it a couple receives a mysterious artifact with a big button along with the offer that if they decide to press it someone they don’t know will die but in exchange they’ll get a bunch of money. The short story does not push much further than that: wife pushes button, husband dies, grim gotcha joke at her expense (turns out she didn’t know her husband). Then Richard Kelly takes it to Armageddon heights: wife pushes button, now the box (and the same offer) passes to someone else with the ominous warning that “it’ll certainly be someone they don’t know.” So now it’s a recursive function that threatens the whole world, not only because most will push the button and random people will die, but also because the beings conducting these grim proposals are actually testing humanity and will decide their existence’s worth based on the results. And so we’re brought quite rapidly to Kelly’s comfort zone: the end of the world.
I think the adoption of the box as a symbol instead of the button was very deliberate.
As in all R.K. movies his cultural references are very pertinent to the story. Here (aside from the main inspiration of Richard Matheson story) we have two main ones:
From Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit: Hell is other people.
A bleak play where three people find themselves locked in a room (trapped in a box?) after death. Here they realize that it’s impossible for them to get along or collaborate and thus they torment each other for eternity. In a sense it’s the tragic outcome that people in the movie are seeing if they can avoid: Will humanity condemn itself because they’re unable to be selfless?
From Arthur C. Clark: Sufficiently advanced science is indistinguishable from magic.
Even though the phrase doesn’t come from any of Clarke’s novels, I find Childhood’s End very relevant to the movie. In it, just as mankind is about to launch into space, huge alien vessels settle over Earth’s major cities. From then on it’s mostly ruled by these beings. They tell humans that they saved them from destroying themselves and then under their direction humanity solves most of its problems. This might be considered an inversion of the theme in the movie, since in The Box the attitude of the “aliens” is more of judges than guides, but there are many more parallels between the novel and the movie that make for some very interesting conjectures, like the true nature of the “aliens” and the evolution of mankind.
Then we have the biblical references, which might not be an obvious trait of R.K. cinema (something which would warrant a whole essay in itself), but every one of his films deals heavily with them. Here we have a very obvious retelling of the story of the fall of man in Genesis taken to suburban America. Adam and Eve are tempted by the snake. The end of the world thus mirrors its origin, where humans see if after all this time they’re ready to pass the snake’s offer.
That means it also features heavily on the themes of free will and predestination: Not only do we have the usual plot premonitions but also “the employees” (manipulated living?) all working to create the situation so that couples might fall easier for the temptation. And finally, let’s not forget about the water portals, which might clue to a more connected mythology between all the films.
Finally as a meta-object the box precisely is meant to give us, as a viewer, that experience, of being handed the box, what will you choose? That moment makes the watcher be confronted by the offer. Then being chided for falling with the hope that they choose to redeem themselves in classical sacrificial amendment. Almost like Abraham being asked to kill his son, but now it’s to save him and kill the parent.
Thus the box becomes the symbol of temptation, the forbidden fruit and very explicitly in the myth of Pandora’s box. It’s a very prevalent theme in many other movies. We have Hellraiser and the mad people who wish to open the box for the esoteric experience of the Cenobites. The blue box of Mulholland Drive which conceals the dark secret that destroys the “dream world” once opened. Bird Box, an inversion of the apocalyptic box theme, here it’s not through opening a box and seeing the inside that catastrophe is released, but by going inside the box to protect themselves from seeing that the end of the world is averted. The box in Kiss Me Deadly which then is remixed in Pulp Fiction and on and on.
Closely related to the symbol of the box is the cube, its geometrical form. As a symbol in media it is also prominently used as in the black cube in Snow Crash or even in the movie Cube. But where this symbol has taken a fully bloated apocalyptic connotation is in the saturnine conspiracy. Mostly headed by David Icke, those who follow that rabbit hole associate the cube with Saturn, which is considered the demiurge, an evil entity governing the earth. Since the projected cube in 2d is a hexagon (a figure that appears in the planet Saturn), the cube is also associated with it and with the number 6 (Saturn also being the 6th planet), hearkening to the biblical 666 and its apocalyptic meaning. People in these circles will search for these symbols everywhere and trying to detail in full all of their views would be a monumental task.
Finally we have a very interesting aspect of the cube: when you unfold it you get a cross. Here we see a full reunion of the opposites brought together in the apocalypse.
7 He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God.
Here the forbidden fruit is given by God and instead of bringing the fall of man it “rises” him. Having gone through temptation man instead of being forbidden from eating it, it is given; and instead of falling from eating it through temptation he is risen through being steadfast
Then we have Holy Jerusalem which is a clear cube, no longer concealing:
10 And he carried me away in the spirit to a great and high mountain, and shewed me that great city, the holy Jerusalem, descending out of heaven from God,
11 Having the glory of God: and her light was like unto a stone most precious, even like a jasper stone, clear as crystal;
16 And the city lieth foursquare, and the length is as large as the breadth: and he measured the city with the reed, twelve thousand furlongs. The length and the breadth and the height of it are equal.
17 And he measured the wall thereof, an hundred and forty and four cubits, according to the measure of a man, that is, of the angel.
18 And the building of the wall of it was of jasper: and the city was pure gold, like unto clear glass.
Thus the apocalypse elevates the symbol of the cube, as it unfolds into the cross. The revelation is the clear cube that no longer conceals, with the tree of life no longer a forbidden fruit. It’s the revelation through merit and not through coveting.
To end the essay I want to recall one last movie I think encapsulates nicely the themes we’ve analyzed, Bart Craig’s movie The Unknown from 1999. Here a mysterious black cube appears out of nowhere in the middle of Arizona. Scientists go there to analyze it and try to figure out its origins. They soon realize that things can go inside the cube but that nothing can come out of it. All methods to figure out what’s inside prove futile. More than that, people that watch the cube start getting “seduced by it.” With people getting close to it becoming mesmerized, as if they were watching something in the cube. Inevitably after this exposure most of them go in and those that are forcefully taken back are completely mad and maniacally try to go in. People start secretly entering the cube. The operation starts to become compromised as mass pilgrimage to the cube occurs. People are smuggled into the cube and after a while the whole perimeter falls. The protagonist, one of the scientists working on the cube, realizes things will soon collapse and tries feverishly to solve the problem while taking care of not seeing the cube. However things get complicated once his wife decides she’ll go in and starts trying to convince him to go with her. It’s the most exciting discovery in Mankind’s history and she wanted to be a part of it, she wanted them to go together. He refuses and suspecting his wife is also under the effect tries to restrain her. He fails and his wife disappears. Distraught over this he starts having second doubts, after all is it worth being the last man on earth? Broken he sees the cube and starts getting enthralled, but intermediately he fights it back and drives away as far as he can from the cube. The movie ends in a distant land, he arrives in a jungle to what appears to be vegetation growing inside a transparent cube.
Just as in The Box, The Unknown offers a similar meta-invitation to the viewer, would you walk into the cube?
— Archimboldi is a ghost writer seeking digital embodiment